The Importance of Tzedakah

Rabbi Aron Moss contributes regular Q&A commentaries to Gather the Jews.  Rabbi Moss is the proprietor of Nefesh and can be reached at rabbimoss@nefesh.com.au.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rabbi Moss.

Question of the Week:

I am a strong believer in the value of charity. But I can’t see how it is important to give money to a shul. There are homeless people and starving children, so why should I give money so people can just gather together to pray and hear a rabbi’s speech? Isn’t that a luxury in comparison?

Answer:

Why do you care that there are homeless people? What’s it your business? Are they members of your own family that you should be concerned about them? And who’s children are starving? Yours? If not, why is it your problem? Why should you feel responsible for someone else’s child? What is it that makes you care for the needs of others?

It is certainly not logic that drives you to help others. If anything it is illogical to just give away hard earned money to someone who you don’t even know. Neither is it human nature that demands we care for a stranger. And there is no legal obligation to share your wealth with others. So what pushes you to do it?

The answer: values. You have values, principles of right and wrong, good and bad that direct your life and demand that you behave a certain way. You don’t give charity because it makes sense, or because you instinctively feel the urge to give, or because the law demands you to. You give charity because it is moral, it is right, it is good to help those who are in need.

But where do your morals come from? What is the source of the value of charity? The Torah. It was the Hebrew Bible that proclaimed that our income is only partly ours. A tenth of it doesn’t belong to us at all, but is given us on loan, to distribute to worthy causes. The Hebrew word for charity is Tzedakah, meaning justice. The Jewish tradition saw charity not as a noble act of generosity, but as a moral act of justice. To give is simply the right thing to do.

You have a wonderful sense of values. But values do not live in a vacuum. To survive and spread, values need institutions in which they can be fostered and taught. That is the function of a shul. A shul is where values are taught and lived. By joining a community we become sensitized to the needs of others, as we come into contact with people outside of our immediate circle of family and friends. By hearing the Torah reading and studying its messages, values are shared and passed down.

You need to give Tzedakah to feed the poor and shelter the homeless. But you also need to ensure that the very value of Tzedakah itself is not homeless, and that your children should never suffer from moral poverty. That’s why we need shuls. Because values need a home too.

All the best,

Rabbi Moss